Popping pills for that bum knee? Doctors prescribe prescription medications to control all sorts of pain, from dental work to surgery wounds. When used properly, painkillers can be safe and effective. For many, however, these drugs lead to another health problem: addiction.
“Misuse of prescription painkillers is at epidemic levels,” says Travis Svensson, M.D., Ph.D., director of chemical dependency for Mills-Peninsula Medical Center. In fact, he says, prescription pain meds are the second most commonly abused drugs in the nation. In 2014, more than 4 million people used opioids for nonmedical reasons, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
One key reason: they’re readily available. The number of prescriptions written for painkillers has nearly quadrupled since 1999. Some people who got them for medical purposes continue taking them to relieve stress. Others buy them on the street solely to get high. And far too many young people get started when they find leftover pills in an adult’s medicine cabinet.
Since 1999, the number of overdose deaths due to these drugs has quadrupled. In 2014, more than 14,000 people died of overdoses of prescription painkillers.
Signs and Symptoms of a Painkiller Problem
If you’re worried that a friend or family member may have a prescription drug problem, watch for these telltale signs:
- Missing work, school or social engagements and unable to maintain a normal daily schedule.
- Decline in work or academic performance.
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed social and recreational activities.
- Changes in speech and behavior (hyperactive and overly talkative, or inattentive, slow and impaired).
- Acting withdrawn, hostile, depressed or fatigued.
- Acting irritable or nervous (possible withdrawal symptoms).
- Changes in grooming, eating or sleeping habits.
- Continued use of a drug even when it is causing problems with relationships.
- Doctor shopping—visiting many doctors with vague pain symptoms to get multiple prescriptions.
- Buying medications without a prescription on the Internet or the street.
“If you are worried about someone, try to get them some help,” Dr. Svensson says. “Don’t hope that the problem will resolve itself. It rarely does. Many people with addiction need professional treatment to get their lives back on track.”
“It can be hard to talk to someone about their drug use,” he adds. “But don’t wait until it’s too late. People who misuse prescription painkillers are at high risk of overdose, premature death and suicide. That is especially true if they are combining painkillers with alcohol, marijuana, sleeping pills or amphetamines.”